Monday, October 11, 2010

Three Points on the NYT Mag Article on Basil

A Guest Post By E. Fink

In yesterday's New York Time Magazine (and on last week) an interesting article about a diverse kosher restaurant in Crown Heights appeared. (Keeping It Kosher) In my opinion the article made three basic points.

1) It is possible for a diverse, upscale kosher restaurant to exist and operate successfully.

2) The community in Crown Heights is not diverse and suffers tensions with its non-Jewish neighbors.

3) The kosher supervision of the restaurant oversees the status of the food and also tries to control the way the clientele behave and dress while in the restaurant.

Point number one is correct. There are other upscale kosher restaurants that cater to all sorts of people and I for one, would like to see more places a kashrus observant business person could take non-kashrus observant friends, clients, partners and bosses without apologizing for subpar food, service and ambiance.

Point number two is not limited by any means to Crown Heights. I have noticed that the more insular a community becomes, the less tolerant they become of others. Perhaps it is more ironic in Crown Heights because of the international (probably soon to be intergalactic) reputation that Chabad shluchim have earned as being open and welcoming to all people.

But it is not a problem specific to Chabad. All Jewish neighborhoods that limit interactions to people that are overwhelmingly similar to one another suffer from a nearsighted view of humanity. It is not just between Jews and non-Jew, it is perhaps even more profound when the differences between Jew and Jew and even more minute differences between Orthodox Jews create closed communities that shun outsiders.

For 500 years we tried to get out of the ghetto. Now that we are out all we want to do retreat into our own self-made ghettos...

Point number three is the most egregious. It is egregious on account of orthodox kashrus organizations claiming for years that they do not monitor "anything besides kashrus". Animal cruelty? "Not our department." Undocumented laborors? "The meat is still kosher". Underage workers? "Hey, no one is forcing them to work...". In short, kashrus organizations as a whole have taken a laissez faire approach to non-kashrus issues when it comes to their supervision. (I (kind of) support this approach. Let the consumers decide what the market will bear as far as non-kashrus concerns. The market has spoken. No one cares...)

But when it comes to regulating the way people, who may or may not be orthodox or religious or Jewish at all behave in a kosher establishment all of the sudden the kashrus organizations are eager to get video tape surveilance to make sure the dresses are not too short or too low or too provocative.

The hypocrisy is annoying, but it gets even worse. It gets worse because animal cruelty can involve a Torah prohibition of Tzaar Baalei Chaim. Dina D'malchusa Dina can also create a Torah (or at the very least Rabbinic) prohibition. Hiring minors to do the work of adults can also entail a Torah prohibition. Yet, all those potential problems are swept under the carpet. But when it comes to tzniyus (ie telling women how to dress) and public displays of affection, neither of which are Torah prohibitions and perhaps not even Rabbinic prohibitions and certainly the store owner is not violating any prohibition and if you don't want to see provocatively dressed women or PDAs - don't look! - there it is perfectly within the purview of the kashrus supervisor to violate the privacy of every patron and spend hours poring over video tape to make sure that everyone conforms to the standard of his personal community. Hypocrisy is bad, when combined with misplaced priorities it becomes egregious.

(Note / Disclaimer: I am aware that the kashrus agencies in question are not the same. One agency with its rabbis supervise the slaughter houses and another agency with its own rabbis observes the restaurants. The point still stands.)

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